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Expat and native, art lives here

By Ann Wilson Lloyd
Globe Correspondent / November 16, 2008
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In this colonial city, step into a gallery and art lies at your feet.

Nearly every building in Mérida's historic center retains original 19th-century mosaic floor tiles, arranged like intricate Art Nouveau carpets. Rugs would have quickly moldered in the Yucatán's tropical climate, but heat and humidity did not stop citizens here from living the Belle Époque to the hilt.

Mérida's trove of European-influenced period architecture dates from the 1500s, and many once-abandoned buildings are being lovingly brought back as galleries and museums. The city's history, its cleanliness and safety, and its location as a nexus between Cuba, Latin America, and Miami are engendering a lively international art scene.

Add art to your Yucatán itinerary, and you'll mingle with Mérida's sophisticated but friendly gallery crowd, see interesting work not yet available up north, and enter the city's most delightfully restored edifices.

"I wanted a community space - a place for locals as well as Mérida's diverse expats," said Louis E. V. Nevaer, whose Casa Frederick Catherwood opened in March in a restored French-style townhouse. Nearly 450 people attended its opening, Nevaer said, "including expat Argentines, Catalans, Canadians, Italians, Lebanese, and Cubans, plus Maya ladies in their 'huipiles' [traditional dress], and hipsters in their Goth attire."

Nevaer, a US economist and author whose mother's family in the Yucatán dates to the 1600s, owned a rare 1844 folio of Catherwood lithographs, and thought Mérida deserved them. (Catherwood was the London artist who journeyed with American explorer John Lloyd Stephens documenting Mayan ruins between 1839 and 1841. The hand-colored lithographs are based on Catherwood's drawings of the ruins as he and Stephens found them, covered with dense vegetation.)

Nevaer purchased an abandoned townhouse in 2006, and spent two years restoring it. "This house was built in 1895 by a man who made his money in the first chocolate factory in Mérida," he said. "The floor tiles were imported from Marseilles. It has 21 sets of very valuable tropical mahogany doors."

Upstairs two pristine rooms contain the framed lithographs. Downstairs is a temporary exhibition space, a small garden of indigenous plants, a coffee shop, and a community room where chess players meet. In a charming mix of art and life, Mérida galleries often include things like cafes, or owners' studios and homes - even artist residency space. One can view art, have a drink, perhaps peek at a private garden or pool.

To see more of Mérida's newest galleries travel clockwise around the central Plaza Grande, starting from Casa Frederick Catherwood. The route is walkable, but taxis here are plentiful and cheap.

Two blocks north is Galería Tataya, opened last year by François Valcke, a Belgian, and Gerardo Martinez, a Venezuelan, in their front parlor. Gorgeous geometric tile floors, high ceilings, and lots of light create a perfect setting for the high-end, unique art and crafts found on their excursions throughout Mexico, such as heavy, wrought iron door hardware, hand-crafted by artisans in a 400-year-old forge in Chiapas, and one-of-a-kind Talavera bowls from Santa Catarina Pueblo.

About seven blocks north of the plaza is the Santa Ana district and Paseo Montejo, the grand boulevard of 19th-century mansions. Some are derelict, but the huge refurbished palace that holds the national anthropology museum and the exquisite house museum Casa Museo Montes Molina represent past Yucatecan power and wealth: the ancient Mayan empire, and the "henequen," or sisal, trade that flourished in the late 19th century.

Reenter the 21st century through a new gallery district clustered a block or so west. Behind the pink colonial façade of La Luz Galería is Mérida's most internationally attuned art spot, with a minimalist, white-cube interior and a roster of artists from Cuba, Europe, and Latin America. Contemporary art collectors from Monaco opened La Luz in late 2006, said director Claudia Victoria. "Mérida is a very cultured city, but in an intellectual way," Victoria said. "The city appreciates visual arts but does not yet have the collector investment culture."

A block away, La Casa de los Artistas is, as the name implies, the home and, since 2006, the gallery, for two of Mérida's more established artists, Melva Medina and Abel Vázquez. "We show mostly our own work," said Medina, "but also a selection of other artists whose work we like." In the parlor of their colonial home, Medina's bronze sculptures sit next to white sofas and the vivid, surrealist-inspired paintings by Vázquez hang salon-style. Their sunny studio lies in a patio beyond an elaborate iron grille.

La Clinica, one block west, is another stunning new gallery and home combo. Canadian expat Terrence Jon Dyke finished restoring the long-empty space, a former doctor's office, and opened the gallery in January. Dyke is both an artist whose pastel, viscous-looking abstract paintings are made with poured layers of Mexican drinks - beer, tequila, the rice-based "agua de horchata" - and an energetic impresario. He uses the front rooms as gallery space, and the rest of the house for art happenings. A large Eva Hesse-like sculptural installation by Mérida-based, Czech artist Gerda Gruber hangs from trees in his backyard, and music and poetry events, avant-garde performances, and video projections are held around -and in - a sparkling plunge pool on his patio.

More avant-garde art and artist residencies can be found a few blocks south at La Periferia. This collective of seven artists who focus on critical issues of the region opened its gallery and art complex in a restored colonial building in September, sponsoring the Yucatán's only archive of audio-visual art, as well as installations, video, and performance art.

Three blocks away, the more traditional Galería Mérida is four years old, but moved last year to these expanded quarters. Started by New York expat Paula Seivert and Mérida native and photographer Ivan de Leon, the gallery shows work by many of the area's most respected artists, displayed in light-filled rooms, each with distinctively patterned mosaic floors.

Yet another elegantly restored home-gallery lies south of the Plaza Grande. The name Gallery In La'Kech means "the other me," said owner Barbara McClatchie, another Canadian expat. McClatchie, a photographer, opened the space a year ago to show the work of talented young regional artists and her artist's eye is evident throughout her home, garden, and gallery. "It's a very busy art community here; there were over 300 at my first opening," she said.

Regional government support for the arts has been generous; one of the city's largest old buildings, a 1560 armory next door to the cathedral on the Plaza Grande, was turned into a contemporary art museum a few years ago. The Yucatán Museum of Contemporary Art, known by its acronym, MACAY, is a vast storehouse with holdings of mixed quality, though a recent standout was a large exhibit of virtuoso take-offs on old-master paintings by well-known Mexican artist Benjamín Domínquez.

Nearby, the city's former Post Office, a restored, 1908 French-style palace, has just reopened downstairs as the Museo de la Ciudad, with the upstairs available for contemporary art. A March group show focused on artists' views of Mérida and included a realistic tableau of a full-size plastic lawn chair and drink cooler by Rodrigo Quinones Reyes, sculpted from modeling clay that was slowly melting onto the Belle Époque tile floor.

Well, it is hot here in Mérida, and the art scene especially so.

Ann Wilson Lloyd can be reached at annwilsonlloyd@gmail.com.

If You Go

Casa Frederick Catherwood

Calle 59, no. 572

www.casa-catherwood.com

Permanent exhibit of Frederick Catherwood's 1844 lithographs; temporary exhibits of contemporary art. Admission $5.

Galería Tataya

Calle 72, no. 478

www.tataya.com.mx

Unique crafts and fine art.

Museo Nacional Antropología e Historia

Paseo de Montejo at Calle 43
www.mna.inah.gob.mx

First-rate collection of Mayan artifacts. Admission $3.70.

Casa Museo Montes Molina

Paseo de Montejo, no. 469

www.laquintamm.com

Exquisite Belle Époque mansion. Admission $5.

La Luz Galería

Calle 60, no. 415A

www.laluzgaleria.com

Contemporary international art.

La Casa de los Artistas

Calle 60, no. 405

www.artistsinmexico.com

Sculpture and surrealist painting.

La Clínica

Calle 62, no. 367

www.arte-clinica.com

Contemporary art, performance events.

La Periferia

Calle 54, no. 468

www.galerialaperiferia.com

Contemporary art, performance events.

Galería Mérida

Calle 59, no. 452A

www.galeriamerida.com

Painting, photography, sculpture.

Gallery In La'Kech

Calle 60, no. 595A

www.galeriainlakech.com

Contemporary art, sculpture.

MACAY

Calle 60, next to the Cathedral

www.macay.org

Contemporary art.

Museo de la Ciudad

Calle 65, no. 529A

Historical collection, contemporary art.

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